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Truck drivers not revved up about new safety rules

David Jones | E+ | Getty Images

The federal government thinks long-haul truckers like Bryan Spoon need more rest.

But with the Department of Transportation's new rules forcing drivers to take longer breaks and cut back on hours behind the wheel, Spoon thinks the government has created a solution looking for a problem.

"I wish the government would just quit trying to fix something that's not broken," he said on a recent rest stop in Columbia, Mo., after hauling a load of construction materials on the 48-foot Great Dane flatbed behind his 2009 Volvo 780.

"If I get any more breaks out here I won't be able to make a living," he said.

Starting Monday, drivers like Spooner will have to stick to a schedule that requires taking a 30-minute break in the first eight hours of driving, cut the maximum workweek to 70 hours from 82, and "restart" those 70 hours with a 34-hour break once a week.

The rules are part of a program by the Obama administration to make U.S. highways safer by reducing the number of truck accidents and fatalities. The program also includes a safety rating system that shippers can review when they chose a new carrier, with the goal of prodding the trucking industry to further improve the safety of its drivers and equipment.

"The updated hours of service rule makes three common sense, data-driven changes to increase safety on our roadways and reduce driver fatigue, a leading factor in large truck crashes," said Anne Ferro administrator of the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration, which issued the rules, in a statement.

Ferro was not available for an interview.

But the trucking industry—which has sued to have the rules reversed—is warning that they will mean more highway traffic and high shipping costs for consumers.

The industry also argues that it's already doing a good job of reducing accidents, and that the government's own data supports that position. The number of people killed each year in large truck crashes has fallen by almost 30 percent, from 5,282 in 2000, to nearly 4,000 in 2011, according to the FMCSA.

"This isn't the trucking world of old," said Spoon, 40, a third-generation trucker who has been driving full-time since 2000. "When the lay person who doesn't work within the industry thinks of trucking they think of 'Smokey and the Bandit.' That's just not the way it works .We run safe, we run compliant."

FMCSA counters that 4,000 truck crashes a year is this number is still too many. The new rules, it maintains, will prevent some 1,400 crashes and 560 injuries, and saving 19 lives each year, according to its analysis.

"There has been progress on reducing the number of fatal truck crashes," said Marissa Padilla, an FMCSA spokeswoman. "But we know that fatigue is still a serious challenge. The bottom line is that our analysis shows that these new rules will save lives, prevent crashes and prevent injuries."

The latest example surfaced last week after a federal probe into the March 28 crash that killed an Illinois State Police trooper found the driver of the semi-truck that slammed into his cruiser had been working more than 14 hours and fell asleep at the wheel.

The Chicago Sun-Times reported Thursday that FMCSA records show the driver and United Van Lines have been fined for violating rules requiring drivers to get adequate rest.

The newspaper says the 26-year-old driver worked for Barrett Moving and Storage, an agent of United Van Lines. He has not been charged in connection with the March 28 crash in Chicago's northern suburbs. Trooper James Sauter of Vernon Hills died in that crash.

The DOT says the new rules will also produce a broader economic benefit. The department's analysis found that in 2009 alone, large truck and bus accidents cost some $20 billion in medical and insurance costs, infrastructure damage, lost wages and productivity. The analysis also estimated $470 million in benefits from reduced driver mortality.

The trucking industry disputes those figures.

"We are extremely skeptical based on their analysis," said Dave Osiecki, head of policy and regulatory affairs at the American Trucking Associations. "We've dug into their documents over and over again and there's good reason to be skeptical."

Researchers concede that it's tough to draw up detailed estimates of the broad economic and health impact of changes in rest patterns for long-haul truckers. But most agree that the link between fatigue and highway accidents is well established.

"There are a lot of research and papers, and science really drove this policy," said Richard Hanowski, director of the Center for Truck and Bus Safety at the Virginia Tech Transportation Institute. "I think that's what we want: regulation that's well-informed and that's based on all of the research that's out there."

No one disputes that the rules also come with a cost to the trucking industry. More breaks and time off the road means it will take more drivers—and more trucks to move the same volume of goods. That cost impact won't be felt right away because shipping volumes tend to slacken in the summer months and pick up again in the fall.

So don't be surprised if you end up paying a little more for shipping when you do your holiday shopping online this year.

"The direct cost of operating a trucking company is more expensive come July 1," said Derek Leathers, chief operating officer of Werner Enterprises, an Omaha-based carrier that operates a fleet of more than 7,250 trucks. "So our costs will go up, and therefore our prices will go up."

(Read More: Analysis: Thrifty US Truckers Wary of Pricey Natural Gas Vehicles)

Industry estimates vary, but the overall productivity impact is expected to be relatively small—reducing the average carrier's capacity by roughly 3 percent.

The impact, though, will be concentrated for certain types of shipments. DOT's analysis shows that more than 85 percent of drivers will see little to no change in their schedules as a result of the rule. But time-sensitive shipments—like refrigerated produce—may have to be handed off, pony express style—to avoid delays.

That means carriers will have to find more qualified drivers at a time when the industry already is having a hard time filling openings. It's not hard to see why. Trucking is not an easy way to make a living. Drivers spend days—sometimes weeks on the road—working irregular hours for a median wage of $39,700 a year or about $19 a hour. Driver turnover last year topped 100 percent, according to industry estimates.

For individual owner operators like Dick Pingel, the new mandatory rest breaks mean he's got to juggle deliveries to make sure he abides by the new rules. Many distributions centers now impose tight windows on when they will accept a shipment. And unlike a driver on a cross-country family vacation, he said, truckers looking to take an extended rest stop have fewer opportunities to pull over when they feel tired

"We've got a parking problem," said Pingel, 60, based in Plover, Wis. "When you've got 60 feet behind you some time there just isn't a parking space. There's just too many people that have a hold of my clock that I don't have control of."

The new regulations may have the unintended consequence of putting more traffic on the nation's already congested highways, according to some truckers. The new rules require drivers to "restart" their week with two consecutive rest periods between 1 and 5 a.m. The goal is to encourage drivers to get a full night's rest, according to the DOT.

But that new mandatory start time coincides with the start of the morning commute.

"So you're going have a much higher percent of trucks entering the road around rush hour," said Werner's Leathers. "Traditionally we like to get into and out of cities in the early morning hours before the motoring public is on the roadways."

Drivers say they're resigned to adjusting to the new rules, but there is still a possibility they'll be rolled back.

In March, the American Trucking Association presented oral arguments in a lawsuit asking the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit to overturn the new rules. It's not clear when that ruling will be handed down.

—By CNBC's John W. Schoen. Follow him on Twitter at @johnwschoen.

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